The story of the Fort William downhill track

The Fort William Downhill Track at the Nevis Range is the most famous on the circuit … but do you know the story behind it?

Track Builder Foss Forster tells us about the blood, sweat and tears that go into World Cup weekend.

Words by Foss Forster / images by Ian Lean

Let’s start with a bit of early history.

Let’s start with a bit of early history. The track was originally thought up by local bike shop Off Beat Bikes with the intention of getting national and international events happening. It was built, planned and paid for by Off Beat Bikes, Nevis Range, the Forestry Commission, Specialized UK, the National Lottery, Highlands & Islands Enterprise and a local club called the West Highland Wheelers. It was called the ‘Off Beat Downhill’. Our first major event was the Avalanche Cup in 2000, although back then the Motorway section hadn’t been finished and the race finished at the far end of the car park. Fabian Barel won that one.

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The track gets thumped every year!

Rare Management made an unsuccessful bid for Fort William to be a World Cup venue in 2000 but after the race in Japan was cancelled they were given the chance to put on a DH and 4X World Cup. We built the new 4X track and Motorway section in 2001 and the first full use of the track was for the National Points Series that year. Steve Peat and Fionn Griffiths won that race.

Pretty much since that race we’ve had Scottish Regionals, British National races and World Cups every year with the World Champs in 2007 too. We also have events like the No Fuss 12 Hour Endurance Downhill. This all means that the track gets thumped every year!

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In late March the snow clears …

There are two or three of us in charge of getting the track ready. We close over winter and try to winterise the track using sandbags to keep water off and keep it under control. In late March the snow clears and we start to repair and prepare.

We do an initial preparation of the track and put new material in places where it’s worn. We have to airlift the material in (we shifted 80 tonnes on the day of me writing this!) and it’s then shoveled by hand and used to rebuild as much as we can. We also have to whackerplate everything to get it into shape. This is pretty full on as we have to get everything open and running for May 3rd when the season starts. kyeforte_2

A flying digger

Once that’s done we start looking to the World Cup and decide what changes we want to make to the track and see if there’s time to build them. Time is tight and we have to decide whether it will work or not! Working on the bottom of the track is much easier as there’s a road that we can use but anything above that gets much more logistically challenging.

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Most of the work further up the mountain is done with hand shovels, picks, mattocks, pinch bars and gorilla buckets. For some jobs we can use a digger which is mint but that’s only on the lower quarter of the hill where we can get access. If someone has invented a flying digger that costs about £150 please let me know! kyeforte_1

The most stressful challenge of race weekends

The weather is normally the driest in May and the lime we use on the track can start to dry out too much around this time and blow away. We have to use water butts and watering cans to keep the dust down and berms together! This can be the most stressful challenge of race weekends as we have to get loads of hoses up onto the hill and get water out of the burns and onto the berms to get them dampened down.

I don’t mind this too much though as it means that it’s dry rather than raining! That doesn’t last long though and as we head into June we get hit by midges and some of the 12ft of annual rainfall. Conditions sometimes get pretty challenging in the rain, hail and wind! charliehatton_3

amazing_weather gee_athertonPretty frantic

Running up to the World Cup gets pretty frantic and we have to work hard to get the main work done. Once we’ve got that covered a lovely team of race volunteers arrives and the track gets a good grooming and is made to look pretty. We’ll get the track marked out, get poles in place and pad certain sections of the track for safety. The wooded sections and any other specific race lines are finalised at that point and made good. On race weekend we have a roaming team of shovels and any specific problems (which are always in the woods) are attended to. In 2011 it was all hands on deck as the new line through the woods into Big Doon was wet and a flipping nightmare with track work and injuries.

If someone has invented a flying digger that costs about £150 please let me know!

Injuries are tough on the hill. The red trail is the worst as we normally have to stretcher riders off the hill with 8 rescuers. It’s easier on the race track as we can use the gondola. But – if everything has gone to plan – on race weekend I can normally have a beer! Unless there’s a disaster our job is usually done by that point and we can relax and enjoy seeing the hard work pay off!

This article originally appeared in Wideopen Magazine Issue 23.